9th-inning ruin

The White Sox have entered unfamiliar territory, where the starting pitching can't carry them like they did en route to posting baseball's best record, and the offense can't outscore the opponent.

They dropped their third consecutive game Monday night, as Orlando Hernandez let an early lead evaporate quickly. A late rally couldn't match the second of two home runs by Kevin Mench, a ninth-inning shot that resulted in a 7-6 loss to Texas before 26,889 fans at U.S. Cellular Field.

"We've had it happen before," said reliever Cliff Politte, referring to a three-game skid near the end of April. "Our biggest concern was how we responded, and we won eight."

But the Sox (27-12) have entered a period in which their starters have collectively struggled against one of the American League's most formidable offenses. Orlando Hernandez lasted only 22/3 innings, the shortest outing by a Sox starter this season.

In their three losses, Sox starters have allowed 16 earned runs in 15 innings. It was more discouraging Monday because Hernandez had been staked to a 4-1 lead in the first on A.J. Pierzynski's grand slam, only to see the Rangers snatch the lead back.

"We're kind of down," said Politte, who fulfilled his role with two scoreless innings. "We had a game that we let go. We have to regroup."

Even the bullpen, which had kept Texas scoreless for 52/3 innings, couldn't finish the job. Mench launched a 3-1 pitch well over the left-field fence off left-hander Damaso Marte with one out in the ninth. It was the first home run allowed by Marte in 16 appearances. The only other home run he allowed was April 9 to Minnesota's Torii Hunter.

That also illustrated the Sox's small margin for error, as they fought back from a 6-4 deficit on Aaron Rowand's two-out, opposite-field double in the fifth and Tadahito Iguchi's pinch-hit home run off Nick Regilio in the eighth.

Iguchi's homer was the first pinch homer by the Sox this season and only their third pinch hit.

They were relegated to using their bench in a catch-up situation because of the rare struggles of Hernandez, who didn't resemble a pitcher who had a four-game winning streak and 2.59 ERA in his last five starts.

"I was feeling good," Hernandez said. "I was throwing good. My speed was good. They have good hitters in their lineup. Every hitter had a big swing. It was a bad day."

Mench set the tone by hitting a home run in the first that landed just to the right of the Sox's bullpen in left field. The damage might have been greater had Pierzynski not thrown out David Dellucci on a steal attempt before Mench's first homer.

But Hernandez has walked 19 in his last 28 innings, including two to .209 hitter Richard Hidalgo.

Laynce Nix hit an RBI triple and scored on Dellucci's two-out single in the second.

In the third, Hernandez gave up consecutive hits to Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock and Alfonso Soriano that put Texas up 5-4. Hernandez was finally knocked out on a two-out, RBI single by Rod Barajas.

Hernandez was pulled after throwing only 70 pitches, including 26 in the first.

"I'm not concerned," manager Ozzie Guillen said. "He just had one bad start."